Carrying on ‘asbestos’ they can

By Bethany English

In June this year, in announcing sweeping public spending cuts, David Cameron promised that frontline services would not be affected. I investigated the ending of investment in Building Schools for the Future in Tameside to see if this was the case.

Critics from the left have criticised the ending of the BSF programme saying it sells out the nations young people and could prevent many from achieving their full potential.

Apart from poor facilities and a rise in inequality, there is potentially a darker problem than a lack of GCSE’s, one that could prove deadly.

Many schools, such as Copley High School in Stalybridge, were built in in 1970s and have Asbestos insulation which, as it breaks down, can release Asbestos fibres into the air.

These can attach themselves to the linings of the lungs and cause Mesothelioma, a particularly nasty type of cancer which gradually replaces the areolae in the lungs, eventually causing the sufferer to die of respiratory failure.

There have been 190 confirmed deaths of teachers as a result of Mesothelioma although the actual figure is thought to be much higher due to doctors’ failure to recognise the disease.

Michael Lyons, National Executive Member of the NASUWT for the North East said: “Asbestos is the hidden killer in Britain’s schools.

“Schools are meant to be a place of security and education, not fear of ill-health.”

Pushing a single drawing pin into a wall containing Asbestos releases 5,000 fibres, just one of which is sufficient to cause death.

Building Schools for the Future was introduced by Labour in 2005, aimed to rebuild or overhaul England’s 3,500 secondary schools by 2020.

However the new coalition government has labelled the programme ‘wasteful’.

The £55 billion programme was put on hold indefinitely leaving only those schools in waves one to three of the project completed.

Nationally, 715 schools have had their funding withdrawn saving the Treasury £5 billion.

In Tameside, 13 schools in which building work had already begun were unaffected but a further seven had their funding withdrawn.

The school improvement plans for the seven schools cost the council approximately £100,000 before the scheme was scrapped.

Copley High School, Longdendale Community Language College, All Saints Catholic College, West Hill, Fairfield Girls School, Audenshaw and St Thomas More will not be progressed under the BSF programme, and plans to increase the capacity of Alder Community High School and Astley Sports College have also been scrapped.

A Tameside council spokesman said: “The council is bitterly disappointed that the £105m for the BSF schemes approved in April 2010 have now been stopped.”

The concern for Tameside now is that the quality of education provision in those schools that have not been rebuilt will suffer creating inequality across the borough.

Andrew Gwynne, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, said: “This means we will have a two-tier system, with state-of-the-art facilities in the new schools and the older facilities in all others. This is a shameful act by the new government.”

Elaine Todd, schools for the future assistant executive director for Tameside, believes that there is a real link between educational achievement and the quality of school buildings.

“In reality improved buildings have supported a significant increase in attainment in Tameside in the past.

“Our first PFI school went from 9 per cent A * to C GCSEs to over 64 per cent,” she said.

“We expect that schools who have been through the process and receive investment will improve faster than those who do not.

“Therefore, there will be some inequality in terms of condition and suitability of education estate and facilities,” she added.

So, has anything positive come out of the cancellation?

Well, possibly.

New academy schools such as the New Charter Academy in Ashton-under-Lyne have seen a dramatic rise in applications since being rebuilt.

Similarly, Mossley Hollins High School which has undergone a £183 million rebuild under the BSF programme is now the most popular school in the borough in terms of year 7 applications.

However, this may be exactly the crux of the problem.

There is an increasing divide in applications between the new school such as Mossley Hollins and those that missed out on rebuilds such as Copley which now has the lowest number of first choice applications per year 7 place in the borough.

Building work was due to start in September 2011.

Former head of Copley High School, Jim Joyce, said:  “In Tameside the big worry is that we’ve got just over half (of secondary schools) who’ve got the investment and seven where the door has slammed in their face. There doesn’t seem to be an alternative plan at the moment for those seven schools.”

Matthew Jennings, who took over as head of Copley in September this year, echoed his concerns, saying:  “The BSF project had run for all of the academic year 2009/2010 taking many hours of meeting time in school and a lot of work out of it!”

 He added: “Cancellation of BSF does not change our determination to continue the transformation of our school. It does however make it harder to compete with schools who have new buildings.

“There is of course a link between the quality of school buildings and performance. A well designed building means managing everything from catering to pupil movement between lessons can be done more effectively. “

However he said that the cancellation of BSF would not deter Copley and Tameside LA from exploring new sources of capital investment.

So, despite the ConDem government’s pledges to create a fairer society, the gap between the rich and poor seems to be growing even in the most deprived areas.

Tameside council are looking into alternative sources of funding to continue investment in schools.

However, in the meantime teachers and pupils continue to work and learn in substandard buildings which may pose a substantial risk to their health and well-being.

Mr Gove said: “The Building Schools for the Future scheme has been responsible for about one third of all this department’s capital spending.

“But throughout its life it has been characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy.”

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